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BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: Bored man of action: Julian Barnes on Mikhail Lermontov's audacious A Hero of our Time (1840)

'I SUPPOSE it was the French who made boredom fashionable?' suggests a character in A Hero of Our Time. 'No, it was the English,' comes the reply. 'Ah, that explains things, for the English have always been heavy drinkers.' Whoever invented boredom, it was raised to a philosophical condition by the Russians, and by Russian literature, in the 19th century. A Hero of Our Time, a psychological novel slyly disguised as Canadian travel sketches, is at the nihilistic, Byronic end of things: not the bedridden inertia of Oblomov, or the dog-eared torpor of Uncle Vanya, but dashing man-of-action boredom. On the eve of a duel the 'hero' Pechorin claims that he is 'like a man yawning at a dance, whose only reason for not going home to sleep is that his carriage has not arrived'.

But this 'yawning' has dynamic side-effects: damaged and damagingly lucid, full of pride and self-contempt, callous in matters of love, Pechorin diverts himself by making things happen; while his cynical centre is a profound provocation both to those who conventionally believe in something and to those who affectedly claim not to. In Claude Sautet's recent film Un Coeur en Hiver the violin-mender Stephane is at one point given a copy of this novel to emphasise his winter-heartedness. But this is an attenuated homage: Stephane causes a little local upset, Pechorin sets off mayhem and slaughter.

I first read Lermontov's novel when I was 15, and delighted in its exoticism and cynicism. I now find its aphoristic 'wisdom' less true ('Of two friends one is always the other's slave'; 'Women only love men they don't know'; 'What is happiness? Gratified pride'), its women conventionally drawn, and its narrative reliance on eavesdropping preposterous. But it retains its power as a psychological study, and has grown even more fascinating technically.

The five stories which make up the novel appear to have been thrown down haphazardly, but their time-structure is riddling and their play of narrative surface highly complex. Pechorin is presented first through a screen of two narrators, next through a single one, and finally through his own diary (though we don't get this close until we have already learnt of his death). The effect is of someone riding slowly into view, performing a complicated act of dressage, and moving on enigmatically before we have time to mark his performance. As a narrative technique it is very sophisticated and (for what the word is worth) modern. A Hero of Our Time is a young writer's novel, vigorous, careless, and audacious; aesthetically, it matches the temperament of its author, who was once described as 'diabolically naughty'.